With postponements and cancellations happening all over the sports world, the NFL responded Sunday with three surprising words:
Business as usual.
The league resisted the urge to delay Wednesday’s start of the league year, the annual beginning of the free-agent signing period, and stayed on track even as it weighed the possibility of moving the April 23-25 draft in Las Vegas amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Free agency officially begins Wednesday at 1 p.m. PDT, but 9 a.m. Monday marks the beginning of the legal-tampering period, during which teams can discuss the parameter of deals with prospective signees.
Many teams anticipated the league would wait until the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified Saturday night, which it was, then postpone free agency. Already, because of COVID-19 concerns, teams have been banned from bringing in free agents and draft prospects for visits. What’s more, the optics are not ideal — players signing deals worth tens of millions of dollars in the throes of the nation’s financial uncertainty.
According to an ESPN report, the NFL Players Assn. would not provide consent to move the start of the new league year.
The decision on the Las Vegas draft is particularly complex. The original plan calls for clusters of at least 100 fans representing each franchise positioned in sections closest to the stage to cheer their team for the TV cameras. That flies in the face of all the advisories about social distancing and avoiding unnecessary travel.
If the league were to keep the current date and make the draft even more of a made-for-TV event, with closer camera angles on the players that crop out the nonexistent crowd, that still would require everyone involved to be tested for the coronavirus. That means testing everyone involved with the production, including media. Of course, those tests are not currently available.
For many reasons, the safest course of action might be to push back the draft, perhaps into May, which could allow for the prospects to make the traditional team visits that the NFL currently has banned.
Any time a major event is delayed in a city there is the potential for complications and clashes regarding scheduling. Is the venue available at that time? Are there enough hotel rooms? Las Vegas is a city built to host major happenings such as these, so that might not be an issue, but those are among the possibilities being discussed by league officials.
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But the NFL is pressing forward on free agency, with the biggest question being where six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady will land. There was some clarity on that front Sunday, with the Tennessee Titans — widely believed to be the front-runner if Brady did not re-sign with New England — signed Ryan Tannehill to a four-year, $118-million extension, silencing any chatter about Brady.
Meanwhile, NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms reported the San Francisco 49ers are out on Brady, too, despite rumors the defending NFC champions were entertaining the thoughts of signing the 42-year-old Patriots star.
“The 49ers are out on Tom Brady,” Simms said Sunday in an NBC Sports video. “That is not going to happen. In my understanding, it was Tom Brady’s No. 1 choice, to go to San Francisco and be the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.”
The Chargers, who parted ways with longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers after the season, are also believed to have a strong interest in Brady.
Team activities this offseason figure to be abbreviated both by outbreak concerns, and new provisions in the CBA that further restrict practice time. That would make it even more challenging for a quarterback, even one as elite as Brady, to get comfortable with new teammates in a new system. That would seem to heighten the possibility of him re-signing with the Patriots, where he has spent the past 20 years.
Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner got to two Super Bowls with the St. Louis Rams (winning one), then got back to the Super Bowl at the end of his career with the Arizona Cardinals. He said leaving an offensive system in which you’re completely comfortable and restarting with another is not always an appealing prospect.
“It’s a really tough process, unless a guy can just come in and they can just go, ‘Here. Take over and do this,’” Warner said.
“And that becomes the other part. How much do you want to do that? How much are you able to do that as a quarterback and still be at your best? That was one of the things that really hurt me and forced me to retire in Arizona. Yeah, they gave me more and more ownership of what we were doing. But with that ownership came so much time and effort and game planning, and coaching, and teaching, and trying to be ready to carry a franchise. Because we weren’t good enough to win different ways.
“All of that stuff starts to weigh on you… I couldn’t get to sleep. Everything was about preparing and getting ready. I couldn’t enjoy the Sundays because as soon as it was over, it was like, ‘OK, now you’ve got to follow that up and you’ve got to do it again next week.’”